Posts Tagged ‘PI’

It’s science!

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Had the pleasure of attending some of the Stephen Hawking Center events at Perimeter Institute today. The new building is very Escheresque–up and down stairs and multiple hallways and little courtyards where you least expect them. Good thing they put in lifts; otherwise, Mr Hawking himself would have a hard time getting there.

We attended a public lecture by George Dyson, who, when faced with the spectre of his father, Freeman (awesome little  man), and his sister, Esther, buggered off to Vancouver at the age of 16 to build canoes. Of course, he came back into the fold as a science historian, especially of digital science.

Dyson presented a very accessible history of digital science at his lecture, enhanced with wonderfully human artifacts from his research, including logs from ENIAC  (computer error, not human!!; I give up!) and memos about people stealing sugar for their tea. He revealed the direct links between what was designed in the early days of computers and what we have today–we haven’t changed the blueprints, so to speak, we’ve just made things smaller and faster. And my geek-type friends appreciated that he focused on operations and the “how” we did it, not just the “thinking” about it.

Right after that, we did the tour, the Escher stairs, and so on. Lots of minimalism, and I think we agreed the only thing we didn’t like were some odd, scratchy-looking rug tiles in the common areas. The community outreach was very well done. Random Hawking videos in meeting rooms, facts  & figures on chalkboards, and “ask a physicist” opportunities in the sitting areas. You could even talk to the architects (and maybe ask them about the ugly rugs…)

We also got in for the Julie Payette presentation. She has a good sense of humour, and the videos & images she brought with her were pretty impressive. Some “day in the life” of living on the space station, and lots about what Earth looks like from space. The ones that stayed with me are spacewalkers stuck by the feet on the end of the Canadarm (you have to lock them in so they don’t wander off into the dark). And the “little blue planet” ones–which Julie used to deliver her main message: “Borders are imaginary and you can’t see them from space.”

When asked whether she worried about the risks of being an astronaut, she said she saw the lunar landing when she was young, and despite the fact that she was a girl, in Montreal, who couldn’t speak English, she knew she wanted to do that, and her parent didn’t laugh. They told her to start working on it.

I sat back and pondered once again what the dignitaries and visiting speakers must think when they come to Waterloo. What kind of freakish place is this? That thousands of people flock to a center for theoretical physics…

Coming soon: Scotchneat’s Whatchyamacallit

Friday, April 9th, 2010
spiral galaxy

Beauty, eh?

After a far-t00-long hiatus, Melle & Andrew and I made it to a Perimeter lecture. This month’s was “The Science of Galaxy Zoo” with Chris Lintott, Oxford. It was teh awesome!

Lintott is most definitely a practical physicist. Lintott is one of c o-authors of Bang: The Complete History of the Universe, along with Patrick Moore and Brian May (\m/) of Queen fame. But at the lecture, he was here to talk about the Galaxy Zoo.

What is it? Basically, with all of the telescopes taking pictures out there, we ended up with about 1 MILLION galaxy picture that hadn’t been catalogued. And the average physics student could do only several thousand, and the average physics prof would spend a lifetime studying about 100 of them. So they went to the rabble.

The Galaxy Zoo is a fun game where anyone who passes the test can get in there and classify galaxies – it’s like a cool video game but with spirals and discs! They calculated that it might take 5 years for the public to get through the pictures – but thanks to a fortuitous mention on the Beeb, it took about 3 weeks to get most of them done :) And in the new version, you can also classify supernovae.

Lintott has an irreverent attitude toward all things stodgy, but more importantly, he also has a populist view toward science. Because just like we have a gazillion pictures of galaxies that haven’t been viewed by humans, there are the supernovae and will be other scientific data from the oceans, from the deserts, from… and Lintott believes we’ll see more of this populist integration into scientific research. Other than the fact that this means geeks and grandmas the world over will get repetitive stress injuries in their contributions to science, it is a pretty awesome concept.

The humans can carry the heavy load on sorting, and then if something interesting comes up, an alert can go to the geeks at the telescopes for follow-up and if it’s interestinger, one guy will call another guy who will just happen to take a picture of the galaxy in question… or maybe get Hubble pointed at that baby. It’s the integration of the human perspective and the automated and powerful talents of the computers that will really propel the science forward.

No worries that the computers will ever overtake what humans can do. Lintott says one of the joys of zoos is that public observers have been able to uncover some interesting anomalies. Case in point: The Zoo project got an email from Hanny, a schoolteacher in the Netherlands, reporting on something called Hanny’s Voorwerp – a gaseous cloud near a galaxy that looks like, well, a cosmic frog:

See - Cosmic Frog

See - Cosmic Frog

She wanted to know what the hell the cosmic green from was, and so did the physicists. She got Hubble time, man. It was only after they had published in the journals that the physicists figured out that Voorwerp roughly translates to “thingy”, but it’s official now: http://www.hannysvoorwerp.com/

We were totally waiting for Lintott to comment on Hubble taking a look at Hanny’s thingy, but he didn’t go there. At least in public.

I’m off to classify me some galaxies. You should too.

OMG, black holes!!!

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Probably just wishful thinking from the local newspaper, but an invitation has been extended to Stephen Hawking to join his pal Neil at Perimeter and apparently he hasn’t said no yet. I predicted we’d get a visit, but a permanent or long-term appointment – oooh! Can you imagine what kind of chain reaction would be catalysed in the physics world if this came to pass?

Hopefully, his first visit won’t be in January or we’ll lose him for sure.

Link from Melle